How do you actually make a song?

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Today marks a year of me learning about music theory and music production. It started with last year’s birthday gift from my wife, the MPK Mini mk3 MIDI controller from Akai.

I’ve dabbled with music here and there before, from playing around with Fruity Loops, back then when that was the program’s name, to learning a few guitar chords, but this is when I started taking music more seriously and actually learn about it.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to share what I’ve learned so far.

So, a year in, I have a decent idea of how music generally works. I know my scales, or I can at least construct them when I can’t remember right away. I get how chord progression works. I’ve even published a few demo-quality, mostly untitled songs and got a pretty positive feedback on some of them, including from people who know what they’re doing more than I do when it comes to producing music.

Here’s a few useful resources that helped me along the way. And keep in mind that I intend to make music as a hobby, so I’m operating on a limited budget. I was lucky to have made many of my purchases while the products were heavily discounted, and/or they offered payment plans.

There are always cheaper and free alternatives, so look into those if your options are limited.

Gear and sounds

Akai MPK Mini mk3, M-Audio Keystation 49, and Akai MIDImix

My current setup consists of:

  • Akai MPK Mini mk3: A nice, compact MIDI keyboard, great for writing melodies and making beats.
  • M-Audio Keystation 49: My space for playing is a bit limited, so I wanted something with a wider range that’s still small enough to fit on a desk.
  • Akai MIDImix: A MIDI control surface with a good amount of knobs and sliders. Typically you’d use this to control your DAW, but I wanted a way to make it easier to adjust parameters of virtual synths.
  • Arturia’s V Collection: You’d have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get all of the original synths, if you could get your hands on them at all.

    I have some cheaper and free synths as well, but I like that Arturia recreates the original circuits instead of just using samples, and in some cases they even get the original creators involved. I also recommend these detailed overviews of some of Arturia’s instruments.
  • Splice: They recently changed their pricing and added plans that might include more than you need, but I still like how the site works and the quality of samples they provide.

Courses and videos

I’ve mostly relied on free content on YouTube, including:

Here are the two paid courses I took.

  • Pianoforall: The title “Incredible New Way To Learn Piano & Keyboard” might sound a bit exaggerated, but this was the first course I took and overall quite enjoyed it.

Feedback and challenges

21st out of 100 submissions, not too bad for my first ever competition!

A great way to improve, other than getting direct feedback from more experienced musicians and music producers, is to join challenges. This gives you a specific goal to work towards, and sometimes provides limitations, which can in turn spur creativity.

  • Splice periodically hosts what they call Beat Battles, such as this one where I placed 21st out of 100 submissions. You can learn more in Splice’s official Discord.
  • SubmitHub: If you don’t have a lot of musician friends, or just don’t want to bug the existing ones too much, this is a great way to get some feedback, and also learn to provide it.

Some other music challenges I’ve saved but haven’t yet entered:

And here’s a short list with additional challenges and contests. Remember, the goal should be to learn and have something to work towards to. Don’t expect to win every challenge, especially if you’re just starting out. As long as you’re learning and moving forward, you’re doing great!

So, how do you actually make a song?

It all matches!

With all of the resources above, and many more available online, one question I keep asking myself is: How do you actually make a song?

A song, especially a good one, is more than just an arrangement of chords in a pleasing way. There is a lot that goes into making something that feels complete and rewarding to you as a musician and to your listeners. You can know all the music theory there is to know, but a song is not just not a series of loops.

Here are some of the bigger lessons I’ve learned:

  • You don’t need to learn music theory, but it will save you a lot of time and make some things a lot easier.
  • There is a lot of rules and theory in music, but they all have their exceptions. The only consistent rule is: make it sound good. You can introduce dissonant notes or use passing chords that are not in the scale your song is in, but if it sounds good, then it works.
  • And related to that, if you notice something not sounding quite right in your track, change it. Don’t settle for “good enough”, if you noticed it, others will probably too, and it can ruin their experience. Maybe a vocal is too buried, maybe a hi-hat is too loud. Even the best producers are just people and they rely on their ears just as you should.
  • Don’t buy things you don’t need. There is a ton of VSTs, presets, sample packs, apps, and other music-making tools. Buying them won’t automatically turn you into a rock star, so start small, get familiar with a few instruments, and challenge yourself to make something out of what’s available to you before adding more to it.

    If you find something you want to buy, but is a bit over your budget, definitely add it to your cart and save it to your wish list on the site so that you get updates about promotions and sales later. And there is also Splice’s Rent to Own program.
  • Don’t fall into the loop trap and finish your tracks.
  • Add variety to make your song interesting, but remember that less is more.
  • Take breaks, don’t burn out.
  • Experiment and let happy accidents happen.
  • Steal.
  • Most importantly, have fun!

And to wrap things up, here’s some more advice — thanks to everyone who contributed!

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